The human psyche hungers for closure. Why else do grandmothers tell fairy tales to send their grandchildren to sleep? The archetypal fairy tale can be seen as a parable of innocence and experience. It begins by evoking the happy state of innocent normality. Then danger casts its shadow: a wicked stepmother, a poisoned apple, a witch, a wolf. Dreadful events ensue, but in the end, what has been lost is restored, the good are rewarded, the wicked are punished, justice prevails and happiness returns. But life seldom provides the kind of closure that we crave.
In her latest book, novelist and cultural critic Eva Figes portrays the thoughts, feelings and troubled memories of a grandmother confronting the joyful, all-too-fragile innocence of her very young granddaughter. More memoir than novel, “Tales of Innocence and Experience” is a lyrical yet reflective meditation on a cluster of recurrent, intertwining themes.
Born in Berlin in 1932, Figes was taken to England as a child of 7, barely in time to escape the murderous fate that would befall so many others. The loss of faith and innocence, the shocking realization of unimaginable horrors, are the experiences that inform this book. Figes writes from the perspective of a grandmother who sees a vision of her own lost childhood in the innocence of her cherished granddaughter. As she reads Grimms’ fairy tales aloud to the child, she is struck by the way in which these tales incorporate the dark, terrifying elements of loss, cruelty, death and dismemberment along with their restorative happy endings. And, as she responds to her granddaughter’s guileless questions about her own history, she ponders the nature of experience: the truly grim elements of real-life history that sooner or later shatter the enchanted bubble of childhood innocence.
Her thoughts return to the early, sheltered years of her own childhood in Germany, a cozy, orderly world of Christmas trees, birthday presents, walks in the park, trips to the zoo. As a child, she has no idea that her family is originally Jewish: They celebrate Christian holidays and never seem to mention anything about Jews or Judaism. (Indeed, an innocent reader at first might wonder exactly why this prototypically German family had to leave Germany: Were the parents, perhaps, political dissidents or Germans of good conscience, like Thomas Mann?) At length, however, the answer is made clear: “Children whose parents had not abandoned Judaism might have some inkling, not only of what was happening, but why. I was six years old, still waiting for Father Christmas. I had no notion why he failed to arrive in the winter of 1938.”
Figes portrays her parents’ attempts to cocoon her from the ever uglier realities of Nazi Germany. The Jewish shop windows shattered on Kristallnacht are explained away. Her father’s sojourn in Dachau is presented as an extended business trip. No longer permitted to attend school, the little girl is informed by her parents that the school has closed. Their forthcoming trip to England? An exciting adventure. Yet the little girl can see the terrible difference in her father’s fearful, hunted mien after his release from Dachau. And now, decades later, when her own granddaughter asks her about her grandmother, she cannot yet tell the child of the monstrous fate suffered by both her grandparents, who stayed behind in Germany.
Her own initiation into the horror came in 1945, when she was only 13, sent by her mother to see the newsreel of the newly liberated death-camp at Belsen. When the knowledge of something so unspeakable shatters the idyll of childhood, how does the mind cope? As Figes recalls, it “splits itself in two, the intellect becomes adept at keeping the wild imaginings in check. It reads textbooks, studies the data, the industrial process of genocide, the recycling of gold and clothing, human hair and dental work. The rational self seeks to understand ... how human beings apparently like ourselves could sink to such depths.... The rational self seeks to comprehend the incomprehensible. In order not to demonize evil. But reason loses its grip in sleep, and history repeats itself, helplessly. The dead are waving goodbye but will not let go.”
And thus, she muses, recalling the Blakean paradigm of innocence and experience: “All my life, from the age of thirteen, I have told myself that cruelty has a human face, terror the human form. This is a knowledge I can’t escape. But I remember how it was to see the human form divine imbued with a glow of peace and love. Its arms cradled me, its face bent over my pillow, its hands soothed my every ache and pain. It matters, to hold on to the vision, despite knowledge of the contradiction.”
Skirting the edge of sentimentality on the one hand and fathomless horror on the other, Figes’ meditation on innocence and experience, hope and despair, blissful ignorance and the bitter fruits of knowledge and history is a delicate balancing act. There is a danger of being too obvious and heavy-handed, which she does not always manage to evade. Some of her observations on fairy tales may seem a shade banal, with so much that has been written on the subject over the last few decades. So, too, the parallels she draws between childhood and the Garden of Eden. And her portrait of this particular grandparent-grandchild relationship could be criticized as overly generic. But perhaps a greater danger in handling these themes would be to avoid the obvious in a display of overly subtle ingenuity.
This book draws its power from adhering to a clear and expressive simplicity that gives voice to unanswerable questions: “And so,” Figes reflects, “we tell them the stories in which we no longer believe.... As soon as they are old enough to sing a few ditties and lisp a sentence we dress them up as shepherds, Mary, the three wise men, and have them re-enact the story in which we are no longer able to believe, or do so only for a moment, when seeing their angelic, innocent faces wreathed in tinsel and smiles. Adoring parents sit in the audience with tears streaming down their faces.”